Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cold Weather? "No Excuses" Revisited

The following is a post from November, 23 of last year. With the recent drop in temps and snow, I thought it appropriate to post it again today. As a side note, I did a 20:00 time trial run this afternoon - don't let cold weather drive you indoors to the dreadmill or become an excuse not to train. Enjoy - Chris


Cold weather and shorter daylight hours are no excuse to bail on your walking/running outside. In this article, I share strategies to help you stick to your training plan through the winter. Why sacrifice your fun and fitness when you don't have to?

When it comes to "dressing for success" on cold days, there are a few basics that can make all the difference and there are a few general "rule of thumb" ideas to keep in mind. As with all things in fitness, there is also a great deal of personal preference when it comes to donning cold weather gear and a few factors to consider:

  • How long are you working out? Most people can deal with the cold for a 30-60 minute run if you plan ahead. There are a few of us crazy enough that we will run for several hours in the cold. This requires more practice and more planning, yet it can be done!
  • How cold is it?
  • Is it windy? Wind strips heat from the body very quickly, so it's important to plan ahead.
  • Is the sun shining?
  • What kind of terrain are you on? Running on hilly terrain generates more heat. Running on flat, open roads makes it tougher to stay warm.
  • We all have different metabolic systems and lean body mass, both of which contribute to how much heat you generate during exercise.
  • How much "natural insulation" a.k.a. body fat, are you carrying around with you?

This month marks my one-year anniversary (UPDATE: NOV 2009 MARKS MY TWO YEAR ANNIVERSARY) of getting back to running as my primary vehicle for aerobic conditioning. Over the past year, 100% of my runs have taken place outside. I've gone running in the rain, in 90+ degree weather, and I've gone running when it's dark and drizzling ice. The only weather related condition that has caused me to postpone an outdoor run was on two occasions when there was ice on the ground. And this year, I've come up with a plan to work around that. I've purchased a set of the "YakTrax® Pro".

I've known about YakTrax® for years, but never had a need for them, this year is different. I plan to run all winter, regardless of the conditions. I ordered my YakTrax® Pro online, because I couldn't find them locally. Several local outlets carry the YakTrax® Walker which would work great for shorter runs or hikes. If you plan on running, I'd go for the Pro. Here is the link for the YakTrax® web site:

Layering -
Most people are familiar with the concept of wearing multiple layers of clothing to stay warm, however, not everyone clearly understands how to layer properly. Layered clothing creates thin pockets of air which are sandwiched between each article of clothing. This air is then heated by your body, helping to keep you toasty and warm. The two main enemies to this strategy are using non-moisture wicking fabric (especially cotton) and failure to use a wind-breaking outer layer when it's windy.

Base Layer - Wicking Fabrics:
"The best dressed corpses on the mountain are always dressed in cotton."
The above quote is popular among mountaineers. I heard it several years ago, when I was selling outdoor apparel. Though a little macabre, the saying holds an important teaching about dressing properly for cold weather.

Wicking fabrics should ALWAYS be your base layer. Some people go with a long sleeve option, some go with a short sleeve shirt, you will have to experiment and see what works best for you. Either way, a good quality wicking fabric moves moisture away from your skin and out to the surface for evaporation. Other fabrics, such as cotton, trap moisture against your skin and will quickly lead to a loss of body heat. In a serious situation, this can lead to hypothermia and death, thus the lovely saying about corpses dressed in cotton.

Another thing to consider with your base layer is the thickness of the fabric. You will come across everything from very thin fabrics, which work great as a base layer or it can be worn with nothing else on your torso on a moderately cool day. Others are much more thick and can also be worn alone on colder days, or as a layer that has a little more warmth to it.

Insulation Layer:
After your base layer, if it's cold enough, you should add a layer of "insulation". If you are a fan of natural fibers, wool is one of the best options you can choose for this purpose. Wool allows moisture to continue moving away from your body for evaporation and temperature regulation. Modern technology has given us the ever popular "fleece" which is used in everything from pullovers and sweatshirts to hats, gloves and boot liners. Much like base-layer fabrics, fleece comes in various thicknesses to provide differing amounts of insulation. I have a couple different fleece shirts of different thicknesses that I use, depending on how cold it is. I also suggest purchasing fleece that has a zip-up neck that goes at least 1/4 - 1/2 the way down the front. This option allows you to zip or unzip to regulate your temperature.

As mentioned above, some of us have a greater amount of natural insulation, or body fat and therefor don't need as much additional insulation as our skinny counterparts. Personally, I generate enough heat that even on really cold days, a light-weight fleece is more than enough for me. Others, may need to go with two light-weight fleece shirts. This works great, especially on longer runs where the temperature may rise along the way, you can simply peel off the extra shirt, tie it around your waste and continue on. Or, chose a medium weight fleece if you need more insulation. Unless it is extremely cold out, I suggest leaving the huge, bulky fleece at home. These shirts are designed for sitting around the campsite, or looking snazzy and "outdoorsy" at the company Christmas party but really are not all that functional unless you are going into below freezing conditions. The problem with wearing a single, thick insulation layer is that once you get too warm, there isn't much you can do to about it.

Outer Layer - Wrap it up!
Finally, if it happens to be windy or particularly cold, you should finish your torso layering with an outer shell made of wind-proof, or wind-resistant material. Trust me, if it is windy out, it doesn't matter how many layers of fleece and wool you throw on, you are still going to get chilly. An outer shell deflects the wind and helps to retain the heat you generate.

A couple things to watch when seeking out your shell include getting a jacket that is well ventilated. Ventilation is crucial. Look for back panels that vent and, ideally, either "pit zips" which are zippers under each arm which you can open and close to allow heat to escape, or at a minimum ensure there are vents in the arm pit area of the jacket.
On days when it isn't as cold, a shell vest works excellent as it retains torso heat, ventilates extremely well and allows heat to dissipate from your arms. Personally, this is what I do until the thermometer dips down in the 20's. I also favor fleece vests which are very functional as well.

"What about 'my other half'"?
When it comes to layering for your bottom half, I use the same strategy that I use for the upper body. I start with a base layer of wicking fabric, such as a pair of compression shorts, over which I add a pair of long tights. For me, this usually does the trick unless it's below 30 degrees. If this is the case, I may add a second pair of tights, or I'll go with a layer of insulation such as fleece-based long underwear under my tights. Other times I just go with compression shorts and a pair of thicker tights. Only on really cold and windy days do I need a pair of wind breaking pants over my layers.

The important thing is to be smart and avoid wearing shorts on really cold days. Below temperatures in the mid-30's, exposed legs will cause you to lose heat too quickly, making it difficult to remain warm. Plus, it is crucial to keep you joints warm otherwise you become more prone to injury to your knees and hips. Research actually supports that running in shorts in cold weather diminishes overall performance. So, don't try to be a tough guy/gal. Cover up for Pete's sakes!

Heads Up!
Just like your Mother always told you, "put on your hat and gloves!" Science shows that we lose 50% of our body heat through our head and another 30% through our hands and feet.
Depending on how cold it is and what type of run I am doing, I usually start with a headband/ear warmer made from fleece. I also have one made from windstop fleece which works great on cold and windy days. Once it gets colder, I go for a nice warm fleece skull cap, like the one pictured to the left. What ever style you go with, just make sure it is made from wicking material.

One of my favorite pieces of cold weather training gear I own is a balaclava, such as the one pictured on the right. I've had one of these for years and find it to be one of the most versatile pieces of winter workout gear that I own. A balaclava can be worn, as pictured, which keeps your head, face, and neck warm. Of course you also look like a S.W.A.T team wanna be, but it gets the job done. On warmer days I roll up the bottom half and wear it as a hat, or you can also pull it down and wear it around your neck as a neck gator. Like I said, its a very functional piece of gear. And yes, it should be made of wicking fabric.

Give cold weather the finger.
When it comes to gloves, I start with a thin pair of cheap nylon, knit gloves or similar light-weight material. As it gets colder or more windy, I shift to thicker fleece gloves or add a nylon, wind resistant shell if needed. Another excellent option for gloves is mittens. Mittens hold the advantage of using your own body heat to help keep all your digits warm since all your fingers are next to each other, skin to skin. There are actually "combo" gloves out there that offer gloves with a mitten cover that allows you to wear them in either mode.

The agony of da feet...
Depending on the shoes you wear you may not need anything special to keep your feet warm enough for a 30-60 minute walk or run. Some shoes are overly ventilated, so you can get cold toes within a matter of minutes, and spend the rest of your run miserable. In addition, running on cold concrete or pavement will get your feet cold faster than running on trails as the hard surface is colder and transfers the cold to your feet more quickly.

If cold feet is a challenge for you, you can experiment with shoes that are less airy, shoes with Gore-Tex liners (which are not only water proof, they also tend to be warmer), or you can go with thicker socks. One strategy that works well for winter running is to purchase a pair of shoes that are 1/2 to 1 size too large. This extra space allows you to throw on two pairs of socks (think layering, here), or you can wear thicker performance based socks, such as those geared towards hiking. Sure it's an added expense, but if you use these shoes only during the winter, they can last you a several years, depending on how many miles you put on them.

Practice, Practice, Practice...
At the end of the day, you will have to do a little trial and error and experiment with different tactics in various weather conditions. Yet, just like I tell all my clients and students, if you want to get better at anything, the secret is PRACTICE!

So, get out there and hit the trail or the road. By using my suggestions and doing some experimenting you will find that walking and running through the winter can actually be fun and exciting. Plus, you will feel better and you will feel empowered!

Please contact me if you have questions or need additional guidance with your winter training. And feel free to share your outdoor training stories with me. I'd love to hear from you and you might just inspire others to get outside this winter!


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